Pope Francis on Wednesday deemed the first known black Roman Catholic priest in the US to be "venerable," positioning the ex-slave for possible sainthood. The pontiff's designation of the Rev. Augustus Tolton as venerable, meaning the church intensely scrutinized his life and recognizes it as one of "heroic virtue," puts Tolton two steps away from possible canonization, the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois explains. Born to a Missouri slave in 1854, Tolton, his mother, and two siblings, with help from Union soldiers, eluded Confederate guns and escaped across the Mississippi River into Illinois in 1862, settling in Quincy, per the AP. Baptized a Catholic, the faith of his family's Missouri owners, Tolton studied for the priesthood in Rome because his race precluded his acceptance to a US seminary.
If a miracle can be attributed to his ministry, the pope may declare him "blessed"; a second miracle would make him eligible for sainthood. The Springfield Diocese and the Archdiocese of Chicago, where Tolton ministered to the poor before dying at 43 in 1897, have been working on his canonization since 2003. Tolton assumed he would work in Africa, but once ordained at age 31, he was sent back to Quincy. A biographer recounted Tolton's words shortly before departing in which he wondered whether America deserved being called by many the world's most enlightened nation. "If America has not yet seen a black priest," Tolton said, "it must see one now." He endured three years of racism in Quincy before "Good Father Gus" moved to Chicago. He's buried in Quincy. "From slave to priest. That's an amazing American story," says a theology expert at Loyola University Chicago. (Read more sainthood stories.)